We're all getting something wrong when we view political correctness as fundamentally opposed to free speech.
Few issues have divided the nation further than the free speech vs. political correctness debate.
In addition to deepening the gap between conservatives and liberals, the debate tends to fracture the left, leading to dissent from the inside. This stems in part from the fact that many older liberals simply can't wrap their minds around the idea of political correctness.
Political Correctness: Censorship or Part of the Fight for Equality?
Critics of political correctness equate it to censorship, which they see as a threat to the all-American ideal of unbridled freedom. For most liberal millennials and Gen-Z kids, however, political correctness is about freedom, just of a different sort. It's really about shutting down hate speech and supporting marginalized communities.
Nowhere did this divide become clearer than in one of my lectures in college, a postmodernism class with a professor who I'd always seen as uniquely brilliant (and who also happened to teach a lesbian erotica class). She lost a lot of my respect when—as a white woman—she insisted that there was nothing really wrong with a white person saying the "n" word in solitude, prompting one of the few people of color in the class to raise her hand and ask: "Why are white people so desperate to say that one word?" The professor responded with a lecture about free speech and the insubstantiality of language, a response that felt misguided and totally out of touch.
This generational divide appeared again when prominent feminist and author Margaret Atwood published an op-ed critiquing the #MeToo movement. "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones," she wrote. "They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing." In short, Atwood was critiquing the #MeToo movement for the same reason that many people critique political correctness. They feel that restricting one's language, or giving the benefit of the doubt to and prioritizing the voices of certain demographics, is infantilizing or threatening to other demographics' freedoms.
On the other hand, many young liberals understand that political correctness is an important part of the process of giving respect to groups that have been and are still systematically oppressed. This political correctness can take the form of prioritizing people of color's voices, or calling out offensive speech—even, or especially, when it's the product of ignorance, or when it's conducted out of earshot of the people it might hurt.
What Toni Morrison Knew: Political Correctness and Free Speech Can Be the Same Thing
What we all need to understand is that, among other things, the left's internal war over political correctness and free speech actually presents a chance for generations to learn from each other. Defenders of political correctness might realize that sometimes, accidentally offensive language can present a valuable educational opportunity—though this is definitely not always the case, and no one should be required to educate others about why they deserve basic respect.
Older proponents of free speech, for their part, can realize that political correctness, safe spaces, and the like ultimately come from places of compassion. At their core, they are efforts to achieve a more equitable world.
Perhaps it's too starry-eyed to imagine that older allies could learn from younger people who refuse to accept middle-of-the-road policies or veiled racism, but some older people have certainly embraced progressive worldviews. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," said Toni Morrison in a 1993 address about political correctness. Morrison, whose wisdom stretched far beyond the blind spots of her generation, was a supporter of what political correctness stands for, though not of the implications of that specific term. In a later interview, she added, "I believe that powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic, theatrical language is not dependent on injurious language, on curses. Or hierarchy."
In short, freedom of speech is not contingent on the ability to use offensive language. We can be free—in fact, we can only be free—when all of us are free, which will only happen when language that demonizes or injures certain groups is purged from acceptable discourse.
Ironically, the book we were discussing that day in my postmodernism class was Morrison's Beloved.
Image via the Washington Post
Studies find that millennials have the highest incidence of mental health problems.
October 10th marks the World Health Organization's (WHO) official observation of World Mental Health Day, with this year's theme focusing on "Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World."
In a prelude to this week's commemoration, Lady Gaga and the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom co-wrote an op-ed on suicide, stigma, and mental health services for The Guardian. "By the time you finish reading this," they warn, "at least six people will have killed themselves around the world."
Gaga and Adhanom opine that "despite the universality of the issue, we struggle to talk about it openly or to offer adequate care or resources." Indeed, a shameful legacy of social stigma has shadowed mental health sufferers, allowing society to "ostracize, blame, and condemn" them due to a historical lack of tools and understanding. The piece outlines the WHO's hopes that countries around the world will encourage their citizens to openly discuss psychological issues and open channels for non-judgmental communication and mental healthcare. With Lady Gaga penning a condemnation of the world community that gives less than 1% of global aid to mental health, we can appreciate a public figure using her platform to highlight a crucial social issue — but it's another diagnosis without a cure.
Millennials, in particular, are very accustomed to discussing their struggles with mental illness, more so than any generation prior. With Selena Gomez recently entering treatment after an "emotional breakdown," Kanye West announcing he's off medication, and Demi Lovato publicly struggling with long-term "emotional and physical issues," there's a greater issue in the headlines than just the cost of a high-profile life. At least every celebrity blurb about a high profile figure battling mental illness opens another discussion about mental health.
Yet the core of the problem eludes us. While having those conversations makes progress towards destigmatizing psychological issues, various studies of the last year suggest that we still don't know how to have those conversations, and we might not be fully equipped to handle them when we do.
An assortment of studies in the past year have prefaced the WHO's focus on young people to highlight that millenials are the "most anxious generation" when compared to their predecessors dating back to the baby boomers (born 1945-64). While it's easy to malign millennials for their culture of abundance, youth centrism, and self-styling on social media, science has been weighing in that these privileges come at a cost. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 12% of millennials have received a medical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Gaga and Adhanom cite in The Guardian, "One in four of us will have to deal with a mental health condition at some point in our lives," but they highlight, "Our young people are particularly vulnerable, with suicide being the second leading cause of death globally among 15-29 year olds and half of all mental illness beginning by the age of 14."
Statistics point to possible causes including lower employment rates, larger student loan debts, and decreased home ownership among millennials. However, other studies on the qualitative stressors on young people note epidemic detriment from "multidimensional perfectionism." Many millennials are the first to come of age under the unprecedented pressures of social media "to measure up to an ever-growing number of criteria," aiming for unrealistic perfection in work, school, romance, the arts, and an illustrious online persona. Of course "striving to reach impossible standards increases the risk of anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, and even suicidal ideation."
Curious Mind Magazine
While open dialogue about psychological issues is the first step to addressing them, we still risk being distracted by the celebrity gossip, the tragic suicide, or the newest controversial study that prompts us. How well we manage those conversations towards productive insights into stress management and coping strategies is the aim of our openness and turning point in improving world mental health. Rather than rumination (which can turn into commiseration) about mental health problems, there is the enduring truth that, "Stress is inevitable. You can either crumble and fall prey to it or ride it out," as neuropsychiatrist Dr. Era Dutta underscores in his work specializing in millennials' mental health.
Lady Gaga and Adhanom rally in their essay, "We can all be a part of a new movement – including people who have faced mental illness themselves – to call on governments and industry to put mental health at the top of their agendas." But we as individuals self-direct our conversations and manage our expectations — we know the diagnosis is too much silence, now how do we handle the cure?
Even though some Millennials are almost forty, people are still bashing them.
Last year the New York Post ran an article about Millennials making up the largest portion of the American workforce, ignoring a glaringly obvious point: of course 22-37 year olds are the largest portion of the labor market; they're adults. In an effort to make a distinctly un-newsworthy article newsworthy, the Post settled on old trope, pick on the Millennials. For its part, this article wasn't as bad as most. The author refrained from using words like "entitled" and "coddled" and "irresponsible," but there's still a certain connotation attached to the term Millennial, particularly in the way it pertains to work ethic and maturity. Repudiating a stereotype often doesn't have the desired effect; in fact, it has a tendency of validating the stereotyper.* That said, my editor's asked me to dissect the maelstrom of insults and unfair generalizations that surround my generation, so here it goes.